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The academic side-step; academic freedom is supposed to foster debate. So why do college presidents use it to avoid tough issues?

The Academic Side-step

Last summer the Justice Department announced that it was investigating whether a group of Ivy League and other elite colleges and universities had illegally conspired to fix tuition fees and financial aid packages for admitted students. The idea behind the inquiry--that price fixing is just as illegal when done by college presidents, provosts, and deans as it is when done by arms manufacturers or building contractors--seems to have genuinely surprised and appalled most academic administrators.

So far, the schools haven't said much in response because the probe is still in its early fact-finding stages--although some of them admit to participating in interschool committees formed to set uniform scholarship awards for accepted applicants. But a sneak preview of the likely academic response can be found in a footnote to a recent Yale Law Journal article by Prof. J. Peter Byrne of Georgetown University: "...[C]ourts should not subject agreements relating to educational policy, such as standards for accreditation or principles of financial aid, to antitrust liability .... The Justice Department's current investigation into whether certain private colleges and universities have agreed on tuition or financial aid policies in violation of the antitrust laws ... seems on this ground grossly misconceived and potentially in violation of constitutional academic freedom." Let the arms manufacturers and contractors try using that one! When it comes to protecting themselves from outside control or scrutiny, when it comes to doing things because well, they just want to, it doesn't take long for universities to run for their unique brand of all-purpose protective cover: academic freedom.

Harvard to world: Buzz off

As defensive buzzwords go, "academic freedom" is pretty powerful. It's the collegiate equivalent of "national security." Learning is good and liberty is good, so the two together should settle most anything, right? Well it depends what you mean. Most of the current crop of college officials understand the principle of academic freedom (PAF) as something like "You can't interfere with particular points of view held in the university." In other words, to them it means "Buzz off." (That was certainly the interpretation made by a lot of academics in connection with the David Baltimore case--see "White Coats, Black Deeds," p. 23. Phillip Sharp, the director of cancer research at MIT, warned in a letter he sent to colleagues across the country that the congressional fraud investigation of Baltimore's work should be halted because it "will discourage young scientists from exploring new and untested ideas and even keep students from choosing science as a career.")

The original purpose of PAF was to ensure that professors would not be fired because of the views they held. But today's generation of college executives has been quite imaginative in widening PAF's application. Still, while the particulars can rage considerably, the logical role of PAF doesn't vary much from one school to another. It's like a dance step that's done the same from coast to coast. Apparently, IBM, GM, the World Bank, the Ford Foundation, and the other corporate pipelines for increasing numbers of college administrators have formed an ideological Arthur Murray's to give us a new campus dance craze--the Academic Side-Step. Consider:

* A California court ruled in favor of a coalition representing small growers and farmworkers that had sued the University of California for using public monies to develop agricultural technologies serving only large agribusiness corporations, at the expense of family farms and farmworkers jobs. This landmark decision required the university to formulate a plan for bringing its research into line with the needs of a broader spectrum of the public that supports it. University Counsel Gary Morrison condemned it as "unwarranted interference" in academic affairs that would endanger the autonomy of the university and threaten academic freedom.

* When the head of the appropriations committee of the Vermont House of Representatives, Michael Obuchowski, asked the University of Vermont to disclose its bid procedures and faculty salaries, he was initially stonewalled by school administrators on the grounds that complying with these straightforward requests violated academic freedom. "The university," says Obuchowski, "wants to be public when that best suits it but private when that best suits it."

* When the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) subpoenaed the evaluation records of a female professor who was turned down for tenure by the University of Pennsylvania, in order to check for gender bias, the university refused to comply, claiming that turning over such materials would infringe upon academic freedom. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Stanford, and the American Association of University Professors all suported this tack. Although the Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of the EEOC subpoena, the decision does not directly apply to private discrimination plaintiffs. In a similar but private discrimination case still in the courts, when a female Harvard professor who was denied tenure requested vote tally sheets and the records of successful male tenure candidates, the university refused, claiming "academic privilege." When the court decided to permit the plaintiff some access to these records anyway, Harvard made a revelation that said quite a lot about how it uses the "academic" defense: it admitted it had destroyed the files in question. The nation's richest university incinerated the 4.5 cubic feet of paperwork because of a "space problem."

* Carnegie Mellon University campaigned hard for and won a Department of Defense (DOD) contract to establish its Software Engineering Institute (SEI), which is primarily dedicated to perfecting the computer functions needed for Star Wars and precision weapons. It is estimated to account for around 40 percent of all CMU's sponsored research funds. Although CMU President Richard Cyert originally promised that SEI would not engage in any classified research, this proved technically impossible. So Cyert forged an arrangement in which all classified research at CMU would be restricted to two "semi-autonomous units" including SEI. In defense of all this, SEI Director Larry Druffel said, "I don't think anybody should be forced to work on classified information. I don't think it would be fair because of academic freedom--because of just basic freedom. But the same basic freedoms guarantee those of us who might want to do classified work the opportunity to do it." CMU Provost (and SEI scientist) Angel Jordan said, "In these questions of public policy, it's not for me to tell you, from the top, that what you are doing is immoral, and it's not for the students and faculty members to tell me that what I am doing is immoral."

* When there was widespread concern at Stanford over the nuclear-weapons-related applications of research being conducted at laboratories there, the university reaffirmed its existing research policy: "Individual scholars should be free to select the subject matter of their research, to seek support from any source for their work ...." In defending that stance, Stanford President Donald Kennedy stated, "$(The university$) should allocate space, facilities, funds, and other resources for research programs based on the scholarly and educational merits of the proposed research, and not on speculations concerning the political and moral impropriety of the uses which might be made of its results .... Our policy is that Stanford scientists are free to conduct work of their own choosing as long as it can be carried out in accord with the principles of openness and freedom of publication."

Usually these sorts of campus issues involve large sums of money: CMU's software defense work brought it more than $100 million, and last year alone Stanford received $40 million in Defense Department research grants. Harvard's securities holdings in companies doing business in South Africa were recently assessed at $230 million. And the issues are admittedly complex: Does remaining engaged with the South African economy help or hurt blacks there? Is it better to do defense work or to let it proceed apace without outside tempering influences? So universities are excused for not moving precipitously on them. But that doesn't mean they should precipitously not move on them. Arguing out issues like these as well as more practical ones like tuition policies and hiring fairness is a good thing. We need more of it, not less. The irony is that academic freedom is supposed to promote such debates, not forestall them.

How did campus thinking about social responsibilty get turned upside down like this? Administrators' remarks provide some good clues. Once I opened the alumni magazine from my alma mater, Carleton College, to find Robert Edwards, at the time the school's president (he has since left to go to work for the Aga Khan), explaining why Carleton should not divest its funds from corporations doing business in South Africa: "No one can or wishes to defend apartheid. But ... to impose total divestiture on those who, for moral reasons, oppose boycotts would be to impose on an educational institution the 'single eye' that would be contrary to its nature. I've spent nine years here doing my best to preserve openness of debate--and to protect the college from taking dogmatic institutional positions." And in an interview, Princeton University President Harold Shapiro once told me, "Universities, I believe, ought not to be out there in the forefront of change, as an institution committed to one point of view. We may want to be out there as individuals, indeed I hope we are out there as individuals, but I think it would be quite a mistake to be out there as an institution sponsoring one particular perspective, because we want to be an institution which can harbor all kinds of points of view."

Edwards and Shapiro are making veiled appeals to the hard-nosed defense of civil liberty first popularized by the 19th-century English philosopher John Stuart Mill. But they keep getting Mill wrong. His version of PAF is: "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others." In setting out this doctrine, Mill was interested in shielding an individual's right to opinions from the powers of the state and other social institutions. As he puts it, "the inward domain of consciousness" is the "appropriate region of human liberty." He was most certainly not categorically defending the right of the government or any other powerful institution like a modern university to put opinions into action. Indeed, Mill expressly states that "no one pretends that actions should be as free as opinions. On the contrary, even opinions lose their immunity when the circumstances in which they are expressed are such as to constitute in their expression a positive instigation to some mischievous act." In other words, freedom of thought should be virtually sacrosanct on campus, but the minute universities do something, it's time for everyone else's gloves to come off. And with their increasing corporate and government ties, universities nowadays are nearly always doing something.

Mill's version of PAF still protects freedom of discussion in the classroom but wards off the widely held nonsense that universities are committed to value-indifference. Mill's principle tells us that our tolerance must cease when harm to others is its consequence.

Bok to Hutchins: Huh?

One of the chief reasons for believing in Mill's principle is that history is so replete with examples of the fallibility of human opinion. We started off believing that the solar system was geocentric, that witches would float, etc. The idea here is that if we are so prone to error in our beliefs, then we had better respect denials of them. But fallibility, like human knowledge, has its limits. Does anyone seriously think that we might someday discover reasons that would show that apartheid is permissible after all? If not, then the doctrine of apartheid can be specially exempted from the usual academic courtesies. It may not even be acceptable to believe in it, much less to support it financially.

In other words, this business of openness is full of nuance. That's precisely why universities are falling down when they defend their practices not by argument about their substantive merits but instead willy-nilly by the PAF gambit: "Although there might be difficulties with this, academic freedom constrains me or you from evaluating it." Universities should be the last place in America where waving a magic wand over a problem is preferred to thinking about it. But with the help of PAF, it's astounding how uncurious some academics can be. At the University of Massachusetts, chemistry professor Louis Quin regards his DOD-sponsored work on the deadly anthrax virus as "just another way of getting basic research money. I'm not controlled by the Department of Defense. I'm not being manipulated by them. I'm not contributing to anything but basic knowledge and free publication. My job is to do basic research and let it be disseminated." Or consider the defense Harvard President Derek Bok gave of his institution's reluctance to divest all of its South African-involved stocks: "Universities have neither the mandate nor the competence to administer foreign policy, set our social and economic priorities, enforce standards of conduct in the society, or carry out other social functions apart from learning and discovery." I would hope that if a college president were going to maintain financial ties with South Africa, he'd have and offer some reasons for doing so. Academic freedom shouldn't obliterate moral responsibility or moral debate.

How far we've fallen from the understanding of Robert Maynard Hutchins, former president of the University of Chicago, who wrote: "To say, 'Let us gain knowledge and power and our ends will take care of themselves,' is not to fashion the intellect of the modern world but [is] to submit to it, for this is what the modern world is saying. Here the university abandons the task of intellectual leadership and mirrors, symbolizes, and justifies the great reversal of ends and means, which is the underlying disorder of our society. And it does so at a time when all we have to do is look around us to see that the growth of knowledge and power gives us no hint as to how to use them."

Besides fallibility, another reason Mill gave for adopting his PAF is that even if we are lucky enough to have a true belief, the absence of discussion soon transforms it into dogma. How ironic that in the current campus debates the most flagrant case of a dead doctrine seems to be the PAF itself in the hands of the administrators. It seems true to say of these educators, as Mill said of "the majority of believers" of Christianity, that they believe such a principle "as people believe what they have always heard lauded and never discussed." How else can you explain the educators' failure to appreciate the difference between private belief and institutional profit? Or their frequent supposition that divesting South African-involved stock or refusing missile research is a political act, while investing in the stock or engaging in the research is not?

Once you distinguish freedom of belief from freedom of action, it's not hard to see that pace Cyert, Kennedy, Edwards, Shapiro, Bok, and their ilk, the university's admitted interest in intellectual neutrality hardly requires moral neutrality. Even a cursory look around campus shows many values in place and working hard. Researchers have to abide by numerous guidelines governing human and animal research. Even with unprecedented cultural diversity, there is not, and never will be, a Hitler Studies Department. Plagiarism is a crime, punishable by expulsion. What kind of mind could live amidst all this and not see the values?

Only the corporate mind now dominating our campuses. In short, we are well on our way to "edu-business." And with the help of ivy-covered shibboleths like "academic freedom," edu-business promises to do every bit as much for the university as agri-business did for the family farm.

Scott Shuger is an editor of The Washington Monthly. Research assistance was provided by John Heilemann, Ethan Feinsilver, and Donne Masaki.
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Author:Shuger, Scott
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Apr 1, 1990
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